Philippe Bourget - 2012-12-08
Set along the Pacific Ocean where the peaks of the Cordillera de la Costa meet the air from the sea below, the Fray Jorge National Park enjoys a singularly humid micro-climate. The incredible luxuriance of its flora is an abrupt change from the arid desolation of the cactus-filled stretches of this part of northern Chile.
Thirty-eight kilometres. That’s the length of the road between the Pan-American Highway and the Pacific coast, between Termas de Socos and La Serena, in Chile’s Region IV, nearly five hours north of Santiago. Just thirty-eight kilometres for a complete change of world, climate, landscape... and mood.
At first, as you head north from the capital of this long string of a country (4,300 kilometres long for an average of just 180 kilometres wide), everything, or nearly so, seems desolate and bleak. Arid hills as far as the eye can see, scattered buildings of the campo, small splashes of colour in sheet metal or wood forming fake villages… Here and there, lemon and kiwi plantations grow thanks to forced irrigation, but only the candelabra cactus seems to naturally thrive in this dry, yellow landscape where rain is so rare.
The dirt road, in excellent shape, turns in wide bends as it approaches the final cordillera, the one that sweeps down to the Pacific coast. These are the last mountains to wear the cloud cap that nearly never leaves their crowns. Everywhere else, the sky in this southern spring is an intense, dazzling blue.
You finally arrive at the Parque Nacional Bosques Fray Jorge. After the entrance, there are two more kilometres of track to follow before you reach the information centre. After a short presentation of the park’s ecosystem (10,000 hectares), it’s time to scale the final eight kilometres that lead to the humid forest, an ecotype that is only found here and further south near Patagonia. The only prerequisite: 4WD. Two-wheel drive vehicles are not allowed to drive in the park because the tracks are so steep and chaotic.
You’ll be shaken up and dusty by the time the fog grabs you at the last bend in the road. It’s the beginning of a new world. The darkness and light of raging clouds, furious winds climbing up from the shore, a plummeting temperature (10 ° to 15 °C lower than at the bottom of the track!), a phantasmagorical atmosphere of uninhibited flora, with plants that seem to jostle for space. Trees moan, groan, meow and squeal as gusts of wind cause them to rub together. The humidity slaps you in the face. A bird, disturbed, flies away with a startled cry. Alone in this oppressive world, walking along the man-made footpath through the bosque hidrófilo - the humid forest - your heart beats faster. The surroundings are reminiscent of the forest of Broceliande, of gods of the underworld, of myths of Creation. Far below, the Pacific appears in its cotton swaddling, its jagged coast free of inhabitants.
The camanchaca is a well-known phenomenon. Slipping above the cool Pacific Ocean, (its waters are rarely warmer than 14 °C), the air from the sea rises against the obstacle that is the Cordillera de la Costa, where it warms and condenses. This is how the humid mist that favours the growth of the ‘southern’ flora (440 indigenous species, 266 varieties of endemic plants) is formed. ‘When it storms, the clouds go over the peak and tumble down the other side,’ explains Marcelo Silva, a ranger-guide clothed in the green uniform of the CONAF, the forestry organisation that manages Chile’s parks and reserves.
El Niño, on the other hand, is a relatively unpredictable phenomenon that can appear around Christmas in the spring and summer of the southern hemisphere. Strengthened by global warming, it is blamed for making the region even more arid than before, driving all of the humidity-dependent flora to the last misty slopes of the Pacific where these ‘diabolical’ clouds continue to foster strange sensations. A blend of apprehension and fascination experienced in these virgin landscapes of the ‘new world’.
Parque Nacional Bosques de Fray Jorge
Limarí Province, La Serena/Coquimbo Region
+56 (0)9 346 2706
Fee: 2,500 pesos/person (children: 1,000 pesos).
Flying to Chile
There are no direct flights from the UK. You can either fly direct from Paris or Madrid, or change planes in the US (New York, Miami, Dallas...) or Brazil (Saõ Paulo) from around £800 return.
Econorent, at the Santiago airport and in the city (Manquehue 600, Las Condes) has good rates. www.econorent.cl